Kerry Swift-boats Bush.

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Dec. 2 2005 1:33 PM

Kerry Swift-Boats Bush

The president isn't as clueless as his rival makes him out to be.

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Kerry: Not entirely candid.
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Kerry: Not entirely candid

Responding to the president's Wednesday speech on the war, Sen. John Kerry charged that George Bush didn't understand a fundamental reality on the ground in Iraq: that the presence of U.S. troops itself fuels the insurgency. Even Bush's top officer overseeing operations, Army Gen. George W. Casey, has testified to this and yet, Kerry charges, the president is oblivious. "The president's not dealing with a certain kind of reality that's important to the lives of our troops," says Kerry.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The criticism cleverly paints Bush as hopelessly clueless. It aligns Kerry with the fighting man: He's not cutting and running when he calls for a speed-up of troop withdrawal, he's just listening to Gen. Casey, unlike Bush himself. Kerry is leveraging Bush's reputation for stubbornness and lack of candor and turning it into a deadly flaw.

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Like most clever feints in Washington, it's also not entirely honest. True: Bush doesn't admit that the presence of large numbers of U.S. soldiers inspires insurgents. He probably never will. But that's a lack of candor, not a hole in the military strategy. Kerry wants to make what Bush doesn't say proof of what Bush doesn't know.

Lord knows that Bush should be more candid. But Kerry is being less than candid himself when he suggests that the strategy Bush is following—as flawed as it may be—does not accommodate a realistic understanding of the insurgency. Why? Because Gen. Casey, whom the senator has been quoting to criticize Bush, is the author of the counterinsurgency strategy that Bush unveiled publicly Wednesday.

As Kerry asserts, Casey did tell the Senate armed services committee on Sept. 29, 2005, that "our presence in Iraq" was "one of the elements that fuels the insurgency." Furthermore: "Increased coalition presence speeds the notion of occupation. It extends the amount of time that it will take for Iraqi security forces to become self-reliant, and it exposes more coalition forces to attacks at a time when Iraqi security forces are increasingly available and increasingly capable."

That's the part that Kerry has been referring to. But he glosses over Casey's next point: The military has a strategy for dealing with this problem. What is that strategy? Train Iraqi forces and remove U.S. troops once the Iraqi army is ready. This is how Casey puts it: "[R]educing the visibility and ultimately the presence of coalition forces as we transition to Iraqi security self-reliance remains a key element of our overall counterinsurgency strategy." This is how Bush has been putting it since late June: "As they stand up, we stand down."

There are reasonable grounds for criticizing the Bush/Casey strategy for dealing with the insurgency as flawed. It may be too little too late, or it may be based on rosy assumptions. But Kerry doesn't challenge it on any substantive basis. He can't, because to do so would acknowledge that Bush is offering a solution to the problem of U.S. troops inspiring insurgents. Kerry's spin is that Bush is so clueless he doesn't even know the problem exists; whereas he, Kerry, has his eye on what is so "important to the lives of our troops."

It must be pleasurable for the president's former rival—whose positions were so distorted during the presidential campaign—to do a little twisting himself. But it's a little too clever to both scold Bush for playing rhetorical tricks and then steal the dishonest technique. Of course, had Kerry gotten the hang of this a little sooner, he might have won.

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